Sophomores and Juniors: Independent Study

Sophomores and Juniors: Independent Study

COVID is hindering in-person learning, forcing clubs to meet online (if not canceling them outright), and may even throw a wrench in in-person educational and extracurricular planning for next spring and summer. A primary focus of our work with 10th and 11th graders is extracurricular planning, and there’s one that is almost never dependent on needing to be anywhere in person: the independent study. 

Independent studies (IS) can be done anywhere and work with almost any area of interest, which is why in such uncertain times, they are our go-to EC. Like the “purpose” or “passion” projects many of our students undertake, the IS is a create your own educational opportunity, so there’s no one size fits all model to follow or template you can use to just plug and play. Below are some of the details we suggest thinking through if you are interested in conceptualizing an IS.

Who

The IS requires the student to have an area of interest that they want to explore (or explore more), as well as the time, energy, and foresight to plan it on their own. However, students may want to seek out support from a teacher at their high school or a mentor from outside of school if they desire to formalize it or have some guidance or check-ins along the way. 

What

Anything goes! But we suggest an area of academic interest related to what you may pursue in college. It might be a new topic, or it might be an extension of a topic you have already researched. The bottom line is, it should 1) be a topic/area you choose because you will need to be into it to make the work happen on your own and 2) if possible, it should work with your academic narrative (the academic story that unfolds in your college apps). 

Where

Planning the IS as a remote activity is a good call given the uncertainties around COVID. Doing so also provides the flexibility to add on other activities/formal programming or have time for a job if that suits you while still working on the IS, as well as plan something like travel (college visits?) if that becomes reality again! 

When

Winter break or early in the new year is the perfect time for students to start planning their independent study. As for an ideal start time? Many juniors are busy with testing so we suggest it as a summer activity, although students who may not have AP testing in May or who have finished or not yet started ACT/SAT testing could realistically start in the spring if their courseload allowed. The classes that appear on your transcript will always be the most important to colleges, so you don’t want your IS to get in the way of excelling in those courses. 

Why

Beyond how the restrictions that might be in place around COVID make it an ideal activity, an independent study helps demonstrate to colleges your commitment to learning, your intellectual focus and curiosity, and that you are a self-directed learner interested in charting your own course and not limiting yourself to what you can take in school (or afford to take outside of it). 

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December Monthly Action Plan – By Grade

December Monthly Action Plan – By Grade

Seniors

• If you have been admitted to your top choice school and the process of applying has come to a close, congrats! Remember to maintain your GPA as schools don’t like to see your grade dip 🙂

• Track your application status. Once your applications have been submitted, be sure to periodically check your school-specific portals. Check your JUNK/SPAM email folder regularly (daily), so you do not miss correspondence from schools.

• Do the schools on your list require midterm grade reports? Check requirements online and talk to your school counselor about having them sent to colleges as needed. Also, re-share your RD list and make sure they know to send docs accordingly and far in advance of deadlines.

• It is difficult to write essays and complete applications between December 15 through January 1 because of the holidays, and…

• It’s always a good idea to submit apps ahead of deadlines. Aim to complete all RD/ED II apps by 12/15 so you are not in a time-crunch over the holidays and beat the RD app submission rush! Don’t forget to send official test scores, as required, to RD schools.

•If you still can, you should interview where possible…and consider which schools on your list you will send an interest/update letter to (no more than a month or so after you apply).

• If you were deferred, check back for a post on that soon (or look back to this time last year on the blog). If you need help creating your deferral letter and strategy, reach out to us.

Juniors

• Keep going on tours and attending info sessions (virtually of course!).

• Beyond academics, colleges look to admit students who take part in meaningful extracurricular activities, and summer is a great time to do something fun and meaningful that possibly explores what you might study in college. You might want to consider going beyond a pre-packaged program to something more self-initiated, like an independent study (will share more on this later in the month) or a purpose project.

• Start to think more about your major (or majors!) of interest and how your activities support this interest. Don’t forget: you should be exploring your interests outside of the classroom/school. But what if I do not know what my interests are?!?! Interests are not necessarily inherent, waiting to be found—they need to be cultivated. You have to get out into the world and work to determine them, and this can take time. We believe this is why it is important to start exploring early in high school. Explore through after-school programs, clubs at your school, a summer job, free classes online, by reading books, academic journals, or even watching Ted Talks. What we are getting at is, to really determine your interests, which might someday turn into your focus of study in college—or who knows, maybe even your passions later in life—you have to put some thought into it and do the work!

Sophomores & Freshmen

• An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor at most colleges. How are your classes going? Review interim grade reports, and take stock of where you have room to improve.

• Beyond academics, colleges look to admit students who take part in meaningful extracurricular activities, and summer is a great time to do something fun and meaningful that possibly explores what you might study in college. You might want to consider a purpose project. 

• As we excitedly approach the holiday season, think about how you might be able to help out those in need. The holidays can be a tough time for many families, and high schools and community centers often have food drives, toy drives, coat drives, etc. where you could give some of your time (or food or coats or toys!). Get involved, give back!

 

Enjoy the holidays and winter break! Take some time to relax.

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Interesting Essays

Interesting Essays

A while ago, I read an article in Fast Company, What does it mean to be “interesting”?

As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about college admissions essays. So much of what makes an essay compelling is its level of interestingness—that it surprises me or challenges me or helps me learn something that I did not know before. Yet, this is what I find students most frequently get “wrong” when it comes time to choose what to write about.

Because students have been conditioned to think about what matters in the college process incorrectly, they tend to want to focus on uninteresting topics or takeaways in their essays. For example, one of the most uninteresting topics, to me, is the winning of awards and other honors. I tend to find essays about robotics competitions, big games, and other traditional wins to be a bit boring because I have read a lot of them. These are common, almost default topics because students think talking about their accomplishments is what they need to do to impress admissions officers.

These experiences could be interesting but are primarily uninteresting topics because students approach them incorrectly. Instead of focusing on how they experienced the experience itself, how it challenged them or pushed them to think or act differently etc., they focus on the outcome. Therefore, the reader is also left unchallenged, having not been surprised or learned anything new about the writer.

Students should feel confident that admissions officers will see the outcomes of their hard work on their resume—this goes for all awards and honors! There is almost never any need to talk about outcomes of this type in an essay unless a prompt specifically asks (for a supplemental essay, for example, not the personal statement!).

 

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October Monthly Action Plan – By Grade

If you are working with us, you get a personalized action plan each month (and you can skip this post!). Here’s an overview by grade:

Seniors

  • Keep writing! You should have quite a few applications completed by this time. Please do not save essay writing (or any part of this process) for the last minute. Submit applications as soon as possible.
  • Talk to your letter of recommendation writers and make sure they are aware of your early deadlines.
  • Continue connecting with students, faculty, and staff. Remember to interview where applicable and take lots of notes. The information you gather is often perfect material for supplemental “Why School” essays and interest letters after you apply!
  • If your school hosts a college fair or individual college visits, please attend and meet the reps from the schools on your list. If you have already met them, it is still beneficial to stop by and say hello to demonstrate interest.
  • Prep for interviews. Remember, if the schools on your list have on-campus or local interviews that are candidate-initiated, you must schedule them. Check the schools on your list. All of this information is provided on schools’ admissions websites.
  • Have standardized test scores sent to all of the colleges on your list, if required; please send scores now, so they arrive before deadlines. Some schools no longer require you send officials, so please review each school’s application instructions to confirm. You can also review the list here: https://www.compassprep.com/self-reporting-test-scores/  *there is no penalty if you send them and they are not required at the time you apply. Many students send them to all of the schools on their list. 

Juniors

  • If you look at your resume, are your academic interests clear? If yes, then your academic narrative is developed. A clear-cut academic narrative is beneficial; if you are undecided, then you should be exploring multiple interests. It is okay to be undecided as long as you are actively working on finding your niche. Please keep in mind that colleges aren’t looking for you to have it all 100% figured out; they are more concerned that you have interests and that you act on them (they want to see that you are intellectually curious and act on that curiosity!).
  • Now is the time to plan the rest of junior year in terms of testing. When will you take the ACT or SAT? Will you need SAT Subject Tests? How many and which ones? When might you take them? Have you started formal test prep? Now is the time to start!
  • Although I do not suggest formally prepping for the PSAT, if you would like to get a sense of what is on the test, you can read more here: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/practice
  • Meet with your school guidance counselor. S/he will write one of your letters of recommendation for college, and it’s a much more personal letter if you know each other. Talk about your plans for this year and next year; let them know about your preliminary college list, any visits you have scheduled, and your testing plan.
  • Visit the websites of the schools you are interested in, and explore the admissions and academics pages. Start to think about your major(s) of interest and how the activities you are involved in support these interests. If possible, we want to determine what major(s) options you will list on your applications sooner rather than later so you can best prepare yourself for talking about these interests in your apps. If you need suggestions for activities based on your interests (for example, Coursera courses, independent projects, etc.), let us know—we help with this!
  • Fall is a great time to visit colleges, so plan a few trips if you can. If you can sit in on a class, meet with faculty or current students, or schedule other experiences while on campus, please do. All of this falls under what I call “extended research and outreach,” and can be beneficial in the college search and application process. Also, whether you can get to campus or not, take virtual tours via CampusReel!
  • Do you have a plan in place to get more involved with any of your extracurricular activities? Look for leadership opportunities in school clubs and activities outside of school too. Remember, leadership is far more than leading a school club or sports team.

Sophomores and Freshmen

  • An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor at most colleges. A rigorous course schedule shows intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge yourself, and that you are comfortable with hard work. Your number one priority this year should be your grades!
  • If you haven’t done so already, get involved in activities in your area(s) of interest both inside and outside of school. Seek out opportunities to develop leadership roles. Depth, not breadth of experience, is key. Most colleges prefer to see fewer activities, but in which you are involved in a significant, meaningful way. Evidence of leadership, initiative, commitment, and meaningful engagement is important. Avoid the laundry list resume.
  • You may also want to consider an internship, research position, job shadowing opportunity or part-time employment in an area that interests you. Starting your own club, website, or community service project can show initiative, dedication, and leadership. If you are interested in creating an opportunity for yourself that is not available at your school or through a formal program, contact us, because we can help!
  • Many schools allow 10th graders to take a practice PSAT.  The experience of taking the PSAT as a sophomore will give you a sense of what to expect on future exams. However, you don’t need to prep for it.
  • Schedule a meeting to discuss your high school game plan with your guidance counselor. Your guidance or college counselor will write you a letter of recommendation when you apply to college, so make an effort to get to know them and for them to get to know you.

 

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You’ve Submitted Your Early Applications – Now What?

Congrats! Getting your early applications submitted is a huge accomplishment. Hopefully, you can take a weekend or two off from college application work and relax a bit. However, don’t relax too much or completely stop where you are! There’s plenty that can be done after you’ve pressed submit.

  • Continue to work on application materials (essays). Many schools require submission of RD apps by 12/1 for merit award consideration. Please plan to submit apps by 12/1 if the schools on your list fall into this category (you can find out by looking on their admission website). Some schools where this is the case include BU, USC, Wake, Vandy, UConn, and Richmond. College Kickstart also has a list here.
  • Track your application status. Once your applications have been submitted, be sure to track them online to ensure schools received all of your application materials. Follow up with your school counselor ASAP if a school is missing your transcript or a letter of recommendation. Check your JUNK/SPAM email folder regularly (every day), so you do not miss correspondence from schools.
  • Prepare for interviews. Read my post on interview prep here, and start to practice with a teacher, friend, counselor, or family member.
  • Write an “interest” letter. This letter should fill in any gaps and or address things that you were not able to address in your application. This can be very helpful if a school has no supplemental essays. Consider including:
    1. A paragraph or two on academics if the school did not ask for a “why school” essay.
    2. A paragraph or two on extracurriculars if you were not able to cover these interests in much detail (or at all) in your application. Convey how you plan to contribute to the school via one or two important EC commitments.
    3. A paragraph that talks about the ways you have connected with and continue to get to know the school. This could include campus visits, setting up an informational interview with a local alum/a current student, or continuing to connect with your regional rep via email.
    4. A paragraph that reiterates your interest in the school, and that if admitted, you will attend. *If you are not 100% committed to attending, do not say so in the letter. This is also a given if you are applying ED.

Don’t forget: your grades are also very important! Do your best to maintain your grades/GPA; some schools will ask for midterm grade reports (or even call your counselor to check in on your progress!), and you want them to show consistency or an upward trend, not a downward trend.

 

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How the Harvard Case Highlights What All College Applicants Need to Know

Each summer, Harvard’s Admissions Office profiles a handful of previous applicants in a “casebook” and distributes it to employees. The book is meant to teach staffers how to evaluate candidates. For each applicant, the document details the bullet-pointed factors that rendered the applicant “appealing” and the traits that gave Harvard “pause.” It also provides the outcome for each student.

A recent Crimson article shines a light on some of what came from the casework exploration, none of which comes as much of a surprise to someone in my role. I want to share some of what the Crimson article highlights, but also point out that these findings are not solely applicable to Harvard applicants. Any student applying to a selective college or university should consider these findings because they hold true across many schools.

A clear and impressive academic performance and talent: 

“But stories of successful applicants prove a common truth: Harvard admissions officers are looking for academic superstars who have overcome adversity in their personal lives* and can offer a clear vision of what they would accomplish in Cambridge.

Smarts reigned supreme. In nine of the 11 cases, admissions officers pointed to strong academic performance as a compelling reason for admission. The word “bright” appears eight times in the document.”

*Overcoming adversity plays out in so many different ways. Many applicants have not experienced hardships related to their living conditions, family finances, etc.—but no one’s life is perfect. Everyone has experienced personal failure and moments of weakness and vulnerability. A student’s willingness to dig deep and have the confidence to present these moments is one way to overcome the “hardship” gap if they have not navigated a more traditional hardship.

An extracurricular “niche” (which could be related to the academic narrative):

“While a strong overall candidate, Evelyn [Satmar]’s credentials are not unusual in our applicant pool,” the document reads.

Admissions officers also took note of activities outside the classroom. Reviewers mentioned that at least three candidates failed to find an “extracurricular niche” in high school.

“While the package is appealing, the case lacks the ‘hook’ provided by a special academic or extracurricular talent,” officers wrote of Mandisi.”

And likeability (charisma and lack of ego!):

“Grace was a “strong student” in high school, but nothing exceptional. One reviewer noted her test scores “suggest she won’t be a top engineering student at Harvard” — and predicted she “will have to work hard here.”

However…. “Grace’s teachers, guidance counselor, and alumni interviewer describe her in terms we rarely read,” the document states. “A true ‘1 personal’ — one of the few we see each year.”

And what about “pause” factors reasons—reasons to deny an application. There are plenty of those, but here are a few that are overwhelmingly true at all schools, not just Harvard:

“The document lists “pause factors” for each candidate. These more problematic traits — including less impressive grades, uninspiring extracurriculars, and excessive braggadocio — spurred lengthy deliberations in the Admissions Office, waitlist placements, and calls to a plethora of teachers and counselors.

For other applicants, admissions officers raised more personal concerns — many related to ego.”

Two candidates’ pause factors included “arrogance.” One was placed on the waitlist and never accepted; the other admitted to Harvard only “after many hours of debate.

Admissions officers particularly pondered whether high schoolers’ hubris would hurt them at Harvard — wondering whether applicants could successfully trade standout status for relative anonymity among hundreds of star students.

“What will his transition be like — from big fish in small pond to Harvard — and how will Sergei interact with roommates, classmates, and administrators?” one reviewer wrote.”

You do not need to be applying to Harvard to reap the benefits of these takeaways! We’ve been encouraging applicants to consider these things for as long as we’ve been doing this:

-Perform well in school and on standardized tests. This is the #1 factor. If you don’t have this…the rest is going to matter very little at top schools (unless you are a recruited athlete).

-Develop an academic narrative; even if you have a few interests, dive into them and go above and beyond in pursuing them. Just “doing school” is not very compelling. Get out there and do something!

-Find an extracurricular niche. It might be what you do to go above and beyond regarding your academic interests, or it might be something else completely. Either way, the most interesting candidates have a life outside of school and their excellent grades and test scores. Bonus if this niche is outside of the norm (think deck hockey or urban gardening instead of Model UN or piano).

-Lose the ego. You might be #1 in your class, have tons of leadership roles, and basically be #thebest, but that will all change in college. You are going to be the norm and you will need to adjust to that very quickly. Show some humility and foresight. Arrogance is the absolute most cringe-worthy part of so many college applications! Remove all traces of it (you might need someone to help with this).

Read the full Crimson article here.

 

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